// you’re reading...


Reading tips from writers at the Sydney Writers

Miriam Toews, Colin McAdam, Tim Clissold, and more authors talk about some of their favorite books...

Winnepeg author Miriam Toews used an almost stand-up comedy style of narration in her novel A Complicated Kindness. In fact, when she read from her novel the dialogue sounded a bit like The Simpsons, which might seem at odds with the serious subject matter covered in the book.
Ms Toews said that the creator of The Simpsons, Matt Groening, was from Winnepeg, too. The style of the narration was necessary to offset the serious subject matter of A Complicated Kindness. The novel is narrated by a 16 year old girl talking about growing up in a strict Mennonite community in Winnepeg, Canada.
Ms Towes, who said she was a secular Mennonite, won Canada’s Governor General’s Award for Fiction for the novel.
Her favorite books included The Hunger by Knut Hamsun; and Swing Hammer Swing by Jeff Torrington, which was a debut novel set in Scotland in the late-1960s, depicting a week in the life of a writer facing never-ending problems. She said another favorite novel was Some Great Thing by fellow-Canadian Colin McAdam.

Colin McAdam said he was interested in writing about work and ordinary working lives, and that too many writers wrote about writers. Mr McAdam said he liked the historical novels of Penelope Fitzgerald, and The Big Why by his Canadian friend, Michael Winter, whom Mr McAdam acknowledged in the audience.
In the course of his session Mr McAdam said one of his favorite books was The Golden Ass by Apuleius, particularly the translation by Robert Graves.
Mr McAdam said he liked The Golden Ass because it included the tale of Cupid and Psyche which was a picaresque tale totally different in tone and subject matter from the rest of the book. This was something he had tried in his novel Some Great Thing where he had a character, Simon, a bureaucrat, translating Greek legends.
Colin McAdam learned Greek at Cambridge, and joked that his novel was a way to put some of his research to use.

Tim Clissold said he’d been told things were done differently in China, but that it took him a couple of years of living in China before he accepted this.
In Mr China he shares his experiences of how he and two partners invested and lost millions investing in state-owned factories (although they managed to recoup a fair portion of it). Mr Clissold spent 16 years living and doing business in China, and his book is an eye-opener into Chinese culture and the realities of doing business there.
He said things are more rational there now, in the western sense of the word, but you still had to know how to get things done the Chinese way.

It’s a book that comes along at a good time considering China’s emerging status as a world superpower, and the eye many foreign investors are casting at China.
As far as Mr Clissold’s favorite books went, he told me he liked the collected short stories of Oscar Wilde; Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie; and Wild Swans by Jung Chang.
Also, he liked China and the Global Economy by Peter Nolan, which compared Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiment with the works of Confucius, and found some interesting parallels.
Also, I caught up with Diane Armstrong, author of Winter Journey. She liked The First Circle by Solzhenitsyn; and Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.
I saw Alan Hollinghurst speaking at a session about Henry James – although Mr Hollinghurst’s interviewer probably could have let him talk more in the session. Mr Hollinghurst had a deep resonant voice combined with a somewhat aristocratic English accent. I’m reading The Swimming-Pool Library at the moment and I can hear the same voice narrating the story.
Mr Hollinghurst said, “Henry James is hardly ever bad or boring in the way Dickens or Tolstoy can be bad or boring.” But he was still an admirer of Dickens and Tolstoy, particularly Tolstoy.
He said that two or three years ago he went back to Charles Dickens, who was an old standard in English schools, and read Dombey and Son.
He said it was “breath-taking” and that he was “bowled over by it” despite its “appalling errors and lapses of taste”.
He said writers were always in conversation with the writers of the past.

Lastly, Vikas Swarup appeared at the SWF, and I went along to see him at an appearance at a book store in Brisbane, too.

I’ve just finished reading his novel Q and A, about a young waiter who defies the odds and wins a billion rupees on a tv quiz show.
Ram Mohammad Thomas, the narrator, is accused of cheating in the quiz show;he is arrested on the grounds that an uneducated orphan and ex-street kid like himself could never have known the answers to the quiz. A benevolent lawyer comes to defend him, and he explains to her how he knew the answers to each of the quiz questions.
Each chapter of the novel is a story from his life, explaining how he knew these facts.
Q and A takes you right into the world of India, with all its ills, and doesn’t pull any punches.
Vikas Swarup said he liked the novels of Haruki Murakami, like Kafka on the Shore.
He said the simple writing style of Murakami was an influence on the simple, anecdotal style of the narrator’s voice in Q and A.

Overall, the Sydney Writers’ Festival was excellent, and it was an opportunity too good to miss for readers and writers alike. I kept running into a couple of people each day of the festival, too, like Chris Sims. His favorite books were the D.B.C. Pierre book, Vernon God Little; The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams; and Lord of the Flies by William Golding.


-Next issue: Interviews with publishers and agents from the Visiting International Publishers programme, Sydney Writers’ Festival; Dr Hans Schneider, and more.